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State aid increases not enough for many NNY districts

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CANTON - North country school superintendents are happy to see positive numbers on 2013-14 state aid projections approved by the state Senate Tuesday night, but they aren’t releasing a sigh of relief yet.

After the millions lost through cuts to state aid since 2008 used to offset the state’s deficit, many superintendents say they are still digging deep to balance their budgets.

“The amounts that were designated for our districts were better than predicted,” said Jefferson-Lewis Board or Cooperative Educational Services Superintendent Jack J. Boak Jr. “The gap elimination adjustment really hurts our districts, so the restoration is helpful. However, we are still not equal with the level of aid we received back in 2008. Our districts have given back to the state $80 million in GEA over the last few years.”

The adjustment is a cut made to state aid to offset the state’s deficit.

Mr. Boak thanked state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Huevelton, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, and Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, for representing the needs of upstate New York schools.

General Brown Central School District Business Manager Lisa K. Smith said the unofficial numbers mean an increase of about $300,000 for the district, which is facing a $1.8 million deficit.

“We certainly didn’t get what we need,” she said. “We certainly are thankful for everything we got. We wish we had extra revenue to close the gap.”

Mrs. Smith said the increase in state aid was mostly due to the restoration of some of the district’s gap adjustment.

“Every little bit helps,” she said.

General Brown officials are waiting on word of the adoption of the state budget, which still needs to be passed by the state Assembly, to further plan for the 2013-14 school year.

MAJOR ISSUES REMAIN

Watertown City School District is slated to receive about $34.2 million in state aid, a 5.2 percent increase from last year. Additionally, about $2.5 million was taken away through GEA, but the district saw more than $1 million restored.

However, Superintendent Terry N. Fralick said it is not enough to keep the district’s fund balance from being diminished by the 2014-15 school year.

“We’re still looking at the depletion of our fund balance and cutting our programs and staff in the next few years,” he said. “The major issues are still there.”

At Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, Mr. Fralick predicted the district might need to make $1 million in program and staff cuts to keep the school doors open.

Ogdensburg City School officials are also worried about money despite receiving a $478,602 increase over last year’s allotment.

“It still leaves us with a $550,000 shortfall,” Superintendent Timothy M. Vernsey said. “I can’t say I’m overjoyed with what the Legislature has done for us.”

Mr. Vernsey said he is disappointed that more wasn’t done to drive aid money to poor, upstate districts.

Like Watertown, Ogdensburg is planning to dig into its fund balance to close the budget gap this year.

“We’re going to run out of money, and it’s going to happen next year or the year after,” Mr. Vernsey said. “I was hoping to get much better news.”

Potsdam Central School District will be receiving $379,000 more than the governor’s original proposal earlier this year to have an overall aid increase of $424,080.

“This additional aid will be helpful in restoring some of the staff and programs we had targeted for cuts in 2013-14 and I appreciate the work of our legislators in helping to obtain this needed support,”said Superintendent Patrick H. Brady in an email.

He also credits school advocates and parents for the GEA restoration.

“But we have lost millions of dollars over these past four years, and until the state is willing to abolish the entire GEA, schools like Potsdam will continue to face being on the brink of insolvency.”

Without getting rid of the GEA and giving schools mandate relief, he said, upstate schools simply cannot give their students the same quality of education as downstate school with more money can.

GAP ADJUSTMENT HURTS

Alexandria Central Superintendent Robert B. Wagoner Jr. was happy to get any additional money he could. However, the district has also lost roughly $2.2 million over the past four years through the GEA, he said.

His district is set to lose another $448,000 in GEA in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Thousand Islands’ Superintendent Frank C. House said the district appreciates the efforts of state representatives to set aside more money for public education but echoed Mr. Wagoner’s opinion regarding the GEA.

“They’ve got to make us whole by getting rid of the GEA,” Mr. House said.

Both Mr. House and Mr. Wagoner commented that the GEA is “killing” their districts.

Mr. House said the additional school aid will help Thousand Islands replenish its fund balance. Over the past four years, fund balance has been slowly depleted to buy down the tax levy.

Lyme Central School District Superintendent Karen M. Donahue said the district is “grateful” that it is getting a bit more state aid.

However, she agreed the GEA, state tax cap and the 2009 school foundation aid freeze have forced many school districts to dip into their savings.

In reality, Mrs. Donahue said, the additional school aid is merely helping districts “to close a hole created by the GEA.” Lyme has lost roughly $1.4 million in GEA over the past four years, she said.

Not all superintendents complained about the state aid, however.

LaFargeville Superintendent Susan L. Whitney also voiced concerns regarding the GEA but said the additional $87,000 will nonetheless help the district keep its 2013-14 levy increase at a reasonable level.

“It’s certainly better than what we were initially told we would get,” said. “Compared to where we were yesterday, we’re getting closer to where we need to be.”

When Colton-Pierrepont Central School Superintendent Joseph A. Kardash built his budget using the governor’s figures, he was left with a budget gap of $85,000. And while the increases in aid announced Tuesday night may not have closed the budget gap for most districts, the increase in aid his district saw was enough to do just that.

“As of the last budget update, if Colton-Pierrepont levied taxes at our calculated cap of 4.1%, we still had an $85,000 gap to fill,” he said. “The latest aid run added approximately $95,000 to the projections. That closed the gap and allowed a reduction in proposed levy.”

Mr. Kardash said it is now his district’s plans to present a $9,840,000 budget to the voters that comes in not at, but below the tax cap with a 3.98 percent tax levy increase.

ANYTHING IS WELCOME

The school aid projections were also welcomed at both Gouverneur Central and Clifton-Fine Central school districts.

Gouverneur is estimated to receive a 2.53 percent increase over last year’s aid of $22,559,324. The governor’s projection for the district was $23,064,463. The estimated final figure for the coming school year is $23,129,348.

“It’s almost $65,000 more,” Gouverneur Business Manager Carol L. LaSala said. “It’s better than what we expected, so we’re very happy.”

At Clifton-Fine, state aid is estimated to go from $4,534,424 to $4,781,701.

“That’s good news,” board President Michelle L. Durham said.

At Edwards-Knox Central, the district expects to receive an estimated $60,000 more than earlier projected. Overall, state aid is slated to increase from this year’s $9,513,044 to $9,812,815 in next year’s budget, resulting in a $299,771 hike.

“As with any increase we are happy to know that we will not be forced to make difficult decisions and also that we won’t have to spend as much of our fund balance,” Superintendent Suzanne L. Kelly said in an email.

Hermon-DeKalb Superintendent Ann M. Adams said it appears the district will be receiving $139,268 more in state aid than originally proposed by the governor.

The extra funds will allow the board to review cuts they planned to make.

Over at the South Jefferson Central School District, which received $331,221 in new funds, Superintendent Jamie A. Moesel said the aid is “good news,” and will help the district close a budget shortfall of about $110,000.

Mrs. Moesel said the district had counted on larger state aid amounts when it set its budget, which includes no staff reductions and only the cut of seventh grade foreign language instruction. She said the district’s Board of Education will have to discuss how to insert the new funds into the budget.

Lowville Central and Academy Superintendent Cheryl R. Steckley and South Lewis Central Superintendent Douglas E. Premo both stated they are happy to receive increases but would not complain to see more money.

“(The budget) isn’t closed completely,” said Mrs. Steckley. “We’re looking to close that gap with fund balance and we’re keeping taxes stable.”

At Sackets Harbor Central, Superintendent Frederick E. Hall was happy to see nearly a $200,000 increase in aid.

“This will certainly help us,” said Mr. Hall. “I can’t look a gift horse in the mouth. I can’t assure you anything until the board meets, but it looks like we won’t cut any programs or positions.”

However, he said programs or positions cut in past years likely will not be restored.

“I know our legislators understand what gap elimination is doing for our state,” he said. “I think they understand what their constituents want.”

Times staff writers Gordon Block, Rebecca Madden, Jaegun Lee, and Johnson Newspaper writers Martha Ellen, Susan Mende, Benny Fairchild and Sean Ewart contributed to this report.

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